Douglas County administrators want to give their managers and highest-paid employees their largest raises since 2010.
The changes would come just weeks before county officials head to Lincoln to press lawmakers not to close a nearly $12 million spigot of inheritance tax dollars they say they need to run county government.
The County Board will vote Tuesday on whether to give 2 percent raises to about 300 non-union county employees, including dozens paid more than $100,000.
The salary increases would take effect Jan. 1. The Legislature opens its session Jan. 9.
If officials in Nebraska's largest county adopt the raises, they would have to defend the county inheritance tax against state leaders who plan to eliminate it — and who are still fuming that the county dipped into inheritance tax funds to help pay for a new cancer center in Omaha.
County officials say they want to avoid salary compression, in which top-level supervisors make the same or less than their employees, which can discourage employees from seeking management posts. They also want to avoid a costly labor dispute with managers who could organize into unions.
County Personnel Director Lee Lazure said his compensation analysis for the county showed that county officials in the region received raises averaging 1.6 percent this year and about 2.3 percent for 2013. As a result, the proposed 2 percent pay increase is “fair,” Lazure said.
“There are a lot of counties getting 3 percent out there,” Lazure said. “Two percent is ... what the County Board has given to the union groups in their contract negotiations.”
Even at 2 percent, the Douglas County raises would lag behind salary hikes given in recent years to managers in neighboring Sarpy County. Douglas County managers have received 1 percent raises the past two years.
Meanwhile, the Sarpy board in November 2011 approved two years of guaranteed pay raises totaling 4.5 percent for managers and nonunion staff while also enhancing their benefits. The board extended the free family health insurance perk for themselves, elected officials and county managers through 2014.
Voter backlash sparked the defeat of two Sarpy incumbents.
Douglas County managers who would see the pay bumps include outgoing County Administrator Kathleen Kelley, who makes $147,500. She plans to retire in February. Sheriff's captains who make between $108,000 and $110,000 would see salary increases of more than $2,000.
County Board Chairman Marc Kraft said he plans to vote for management raises.
The increased pay would boost the county's payroll by about $350,000, according to the finance director. That sum would come out of the $1.8 million the county set aside to cover salary adjustments for all employees during the 2012-13 fiscal year. Salaries and benefits are the biggest share of Douglas County's operating budget, which consists of nearly 2,000 employees.
“If we want to keep long-term dedicated employees ... we need to compensate them adequately,” Kraft said.
Douglas County cannot afford to let pay and benefits slip behind other comparable local governments for fear that management would unionize and appeal its wage dispute to the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations, the board that handles the labor disputes of public employees in the state, Kraft said.
This spring, the County Board approved salary increases for dozens of deputy county attorneys and public defenders, who in exchange dropped a petition to form a new union.
“It would be nice to say that nobody gets raises, but the reality of it has some consequences,” Kraft said. “If we don't pay adequately and keep up with the times, we will end up with more unions and possibly paying more than the 2 percent.”
Board member P.J. Morgan said he wants to weigh feedback from constituents before casting his vote.
“I have not made my mind up, but I am leaning toward supporting it,” Morgan said.
Still, the timing of the board's vote could draw some scrutiny.
In September, Gov. Dave Heineman renewed calls to eliminate the inheritance tax after Douglas County agreed to contribute $5 million over a 10-year period from inheritance taxes toward the construction of a cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
The inheritance tax generates about $8 million to $12 million a year for Douglas County, or nearly 5 percent of the county's revenue.
Board member Mike Boyle said he plans to vote for the pay raises regardless of any potential backlash from the Statehouse.
“I think those raises are probably warranted,” Boyle said. “It's not an overblown amount. Most of these are very hardworking people ... leading their departments very well.”
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